Now more than ever in the world of business we are tuning into the top business channels hoping to receive some sort of relief or hint of optimism from the never ending bloodbath. Pensions, 401K’s and stock accounts are a quarter of the value they once were a year ago. Is this the end of overpaid and underperforming employees who lived in their own self important world, where senior managers made multi millions in bonuses while their decisions to layoff a $35,000 per year “low level” employee didn’t keep them up at night? Most likely.Now more than ever in the world of business we are tuning into the top business channels hoping to receive some sort of relief or hint of optimism from the never ending bloodbath. Pensions, 401K’s and stock accounts are a quarter of the value they once were a year ago. Is this the end of overpaid and underperforming employees who lived in their own self important world, where senior managers made multi millions in bonuses while their decisions to layoff a $35,000 per year “low level” employee didn’t keep them up at night? Most likely. Hedge funds have seen their day, Investment Banks are no longer what they once were and the days of CEO multimillion dollar bonuses will be heavily scrutinized. Thousands of employees and businesses which once dictated the world are no longer functioning and they are taking hundreds of thousands of victims with them. No one can predict the market, so why should people be paid like they can.
We tune into CNBC all day where we get our business news, breaking news and tough interviews by the many journalists who ask hard hitting questions and demand answers and accountability from some of the people who got us into this mess.
One of the most visible women on the network is Chinese American Melissa Lee. Melissa asks great questions and you’ll never hear her stumble or pause, even for a second. Not only is she talented on air but she’s talented academic wise as well. Melissa graduated with honors from Harvard College with a Bachelor of Arts in Government. She also served as Assistant Managing Editor of the Harvard Crimson.
Lee covers investment banking, hedge funds and private equity. She also reports extensively on China – ”the country’s growth, its challenges and the opportunities for US businesses. In 2008, she reported and anchored a one-hour documentary, “Made in China: People’s Republic of Profit” from Beijing and Shanghai.
Lee also contributes reports to NBC’s “Today” show.
Lee has been nominated for two Emmy awards in Business News. In 2007, she was recognized for her report, “The $50M Con,” about a college student-turned scammer who ran a fake hedge fund and was ultimately caught by the FBI. And in 2003, she was nominated for her reporting on the proxy voting of mutual funds.
We spoke with Melissa Lee at the New York Stock Exchange as she was about to go on the air. Melissa is cool, calm and collected on air yet off the air she is just an amiable and social person who seems to laugh a lot.
ASIANCE: What is a typical day like for you?
Melissa: On any given day I can really be anywhere; Englewood Cliffs, NJ or the NYSE. Naturally what kind of keeps it exciting is you never know where you are going to be and you never know what the market is going to do. But I would say typically the day starts at 6 in the morning. You read in. You get yourself going. You head into New Jersey to headquarters. I may be anchoring a show. I may be doing a specific report. These days we can be going to 11 at night, like last night.
Watch this 2 year old video of Melissa Lee as she covers Fed Chairman Greenspan’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Executive Leadership Awards honoring “Corporate America’s Best”. Quite timely to replay this don’t you think? See if you can pick out the winners and the losers.
ASIANCE: So if you”re in Englewood Cliffs they’ll just drive you to the NYSE?
Melissa: Yeah usually it’s just logistical. There is no easy way to get to the Stock Exchange. And you’re usually in a rush. We’re usually on a deadline of some sort. I’m at the Exchange right now. We have a few shows that originate from the New York Stock Exchange: Squawk on The Street, The Call, which I’m doing today and The Closing Bell, which I’m doing today as well
ASIANCE: How did you land the job?
Melissa: That’s a $64,000 question. Like anything in TV, it’s really by chance and everybody’s past is a little different. When I first graduated from college, I started as a management consultant but I always knew at a very young age that I was interested in journalism. I thought, originally, it would be print journalism; that was an interest of mine. When I was a management consultant, a couple of years went by and I thought, “You know what? My dream is to be a journalist, so if I don’t try it now, I’m never going to try it.” I was living in Boston at the time and I decided to pack up, move back to New York where my family was, and I took a job as a production assistant, which is basically the entry level job; you print scripts, you run prompter and that’s about as complicated as it gets.
I started at CNNFN and moved my way up a little bit, went to Bloomberg TV, which is actually where a lot of my CNBC colleagues also worked. At Bloomberg, that is actually where I got my shot. I was on the assignment desk at the time. I was hired to start the assignment desk which is basically the heart of the newsroom; you dispatch reporters, you assign producers, you decided the editorial direction of the day.
I think one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever done at CNBC was with Jim Simons, the CEO of Renaissance Technologies. He’s one of the most successful hedge fund managers in the world.
One day I said to the producer, “You know what? What do you think of me actually doing one of these pieces I’m assigning? ” He said, “Alright give it a try. Let’s see what you have. Give me the tape and if it’s good, we’ll air it.” It sort of went from there. That was my one big shot and fortunately it worked out.
ASIANCE: Is it true that you really just get that one shot and based on that it basically it’s over?
Melissa: Just because they say you can be on television doesn’t mean it’s going to make your career either. First impressions are very important. That could be that one time where the viewer is going to be watching you and they can formulate an opinion. You may be having an off day but at the end of the day, you have to deliver the goods. You have to deliver the information. You have to do it in an entertaining way. To some extent I think that statement has some truth to it.
Watch a video of Melissa delivering the goods
ASIANCE: How did your education prepare you for finance? You received a degree from Harvard in Government yet you know what you are talking about in the world of finance.
Melissa: Fortunately I do. It’s funny because in college, I had very little interest in college news. When I imagined a career in journalism, I always thought government. I wanted to cover elections and campaigns and things like that. It was really by chance that I got into Business news. I applied for my first internship at the New York Daily News. I was working on the city desk and I thought that would be great for the summer. I thought it would be city stuff. But then they put me on the business desk and I was really disappointed, initially. At the end of the summer, I was pretty hooked. It was pretty amazing to me that the whole world was based in New York City. To be honest I was a fairly good college student, I was going to school to be a doctor. That (business) wasn’t my world. My parents had no part in the world of finance. I really wasn’t exposed to that growing up but it sort of opened the door for me. There is this world of finance in front of me in New York City and I just got hooked. Every summer after that, I interned on a business desk.
ASIANCE: What was your best interview, worst interview?
Melissa: I think one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever done at CNBC was with Jim Simons, the CEO of Renaissance Technologies. He’s one of the most successful hedge fund managers in the world. He’s made over $1Billion over the past couple of years and he never gives interviews. I was fortunate enough to land this interview. This was probably about a year and a half ago when it was still the heyday for hedge funds and they were still churning out a lot of money. It was a real honor to have him come into my office and sit down with me for an hour and talk to me. In fact, after that interview, people were saying to me, “You know, I have never even seen this guy before.” So it was amazing to hear what he actually had to say.
ASIANCE: Was there a worst interview?
Melissa: I can’t really say. I think there was always a reason for every interview. Even if it offers a bit of information for your colleagues or ultimately for the viewers, then it’s a successful interview.
ASIANCE: Do you have to get the interviews yourself?
Melissa: I think it’s a combination. We have a fantastic team at CNBC and their job is to find the great guests. A lot of the times, it’s the reporters and anchors that are out trying to land the interviews. When we go home for the day, that’s not the end. We’re on the phone. We’re still on our blackberries. We’re out to dinner. We’re out for drinks. You have to build a relationship and trust, so that is ultimately how we get the interviews.
ASIANCE: Who would you love to interview? Who would be the ultimate interview?
Melissa: I think it would be President Elect Barack Obama and the next Treasury Secretary because we are in a financial crisis we have not seen in the history of this country. This person who is going to be Treasury Secretary is going to play a huge role.
ASIANCE: Who do you think it will be?
Melissa: Well the word is it’s either Tim Geithner or Larry Summers. The Bush Administration isn’t going to use all of the $700 Billion in the bailout package. They are leaving some for the Obama Administration. So the big question is, how are they planning to spend that money and any other questions investors may have.
What I really appreciate the most is when people say, “I really respect your reporting”. That’s the highest compliment that I could possibly get.
ASIANCE: How are you so confident and well spoken on television? Did you train or has that always come naturally?
Melissa: That comes with experience (hahaa). There is really no training. I mean you can train obviously, but really at the end of the day, you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Like the other day, we started out with a pretty tame market. The Dow wasn’t moving too heavily and then all of a sudden at 3:40, the selling kicks in. At that point, there are no notes that you can refer to. It’s just all experience. It’s all knowledge that you’ve drawn in for the past weeks, months. It has to be at the tip of your brain. You have to be ready for the moment. That is the moment we all live for. You should be able to turn to an expert and be able to ask the right questions so people can get some answers, especially during a time of uncertainty like right now.
ASIANCE: Do you have stock questions in case you go blank?
Melissa: Usually that does not happen (laughs- otherwise I’d be fired type of laugh). No I have never had that situation. You have a person there. They are there for a reason. So you have to think, what would you want to know? Or what would the average person out there want to know who is watching. You’re kind of just playing the role of the curious mole. And that is just one of the traits you have to have. You have to be curious. You have to want to know about everything. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in.
ASIANCE: Do you notice a different vibe on the floor when the market is up and/or down?
Melissa: That’s an interesting question. In a time like this where you have a slow trading day and then you have all of a sudden the last 20 minutes of the day 300 points from where you started it can be a little crazy. I think even on the floor of the exchange that is going to happen.
ASIANCE: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
Melissa: Oh I’d be a doctor. That’s an easy question (laughs). What’s so funny is that I was majoring in Science and Math. Originally I was planning to be a medical doctor and I had done lab internships in high school and all sorts of things like that. Then I majored in Chemistry and I decided maybe this isn’t something I should be doing (laughs). But I always thought if I wasn’t doing this, I’d be a doctor of some sort.
ASIANCE: Give us 3 words to describe Erin Burnett and Maria Bartiromo.
Melissa: I want to pick the perfect words. I think these 3 words apply to both of them: Hardworking, talented, deserve respect.
I hold the highest regard for what they do, day in and day out and the dedication to their profession.
ASIANCE: How is it to get recognized? Do you get that often? Did you adapt?
Melissa: I do. For some reason, it is always, always surprising. What I really appreciate the most is when people say, “I really respect your reporting”. That’s the highest compliment that I could possibly get.
ASIANCE: Do you have a boyfriend? Are you married?
Melissa: ha-ha. No and no.
Watch Melissa Lee on CNBC every day!